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Conservation Matters

Conservation Matters – Conservation Matters is the title of of our conservation column in the bi-monthly OPAS Harlequin Happenings newsletter. We will post our column every two months for you to read.

This column is from the September – October 2019 edition of the Harlequin Happenings newsletter.

The Dungeness River Supports Western Hemisphere Shorebirds

by Judith White

Judi White

Tens of thousands of birds from across the Western Hemisphere use the mudflats at the mouth of the Dungeness River as a critical resting and feeding stop during migration. Dungeness Bay is so noteworthy that it has received the designation, “Important Bird Area”, identifying it as a significant habitat for the conservation of bird populations. The Dungeness River Audubon Center, Olympic Peninsula Audubon Society, and other donors erected an ADA accessible observation deck overlooking this Important Bird Area, located at Dungeness Landing County Park.

Over 40 species of shorebirds have been recorded in and around Dungeness Bay, yet only four of these regularly nest in Clallam County: Killdeer, Spotted Sandpiper, Wilson’s Snipe, and Black Oystercatcher. Some of the most abundant migrant species — Black-bellied Plover, Dunlin, and Sanderling — also remain in Dungeness Bay through the winter. These three species are cosmopolitan, nesting in high Arctic tundra around the entire northern Hemisphere, then migrating to spend the winter on coastlines throughout the world. Some of their North American populations winter in coastal areas from British Columbia to South America, including our own Dungeness Bay. Studies with Sanderlings have shown that some fly to the exact same sites year after year, both for nesting and for winter.

Who are the other epic travelers who gather on the Dungeness River mouth mudflats? The most abundant migrants are Least and Western Sandpipers, Semipalmated Plovers, and Short-billed Dowitcher. Of these, Least Sandpipers have the broadest and southernmost breeding distribution, nesting in subarctic tundra and boreal forest across Alaska and Canada. They weigh less than an ounce, yet likely have astounding 2000-mile NON-STOP transoceanic migrations. Western Sandpipers have a restricted breeding range using coastal tundra in Western Alaska and Siberia, then migrate after nesting along the Pacific Coast all the way to Peru. Semipalmated Plovers nest in the subarctic and winter in widespread coastal areas, including Central America. The Short-billed Dowitcher subspecies seen in Dungeness Bay nests in Alaska and winters on the Pacific Coast all the way to South America.

Less abundant migrants are no less epic in their travels. Whimbrels, Marbled Godwits, Ruddy and Black Turnstones, Red Knots, Baird’s Sandpipers, Pectoral Sandpipers, Semipalmated Sandpipers, Long-billed Dowitchers, Spotted Sandpipers, and Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs all fly from northern or inland breeding areas on their way to widespread sites along the Pacific Coast, some as far as Tierra del Fuego. The long-distance champions of these species are Baird’s Sandpiper and Red Knot. After departing their high-arctic breeding grounds, Baird’s Sandpipers travel all the way to the southern tip of South America. Some complete the entire 9000 mile one-way journey in as few as 5 weeks. Red Knots also fly extraordinary long distances, sometimes flying six to eight days without stopping to rest or feed. Like many shorebirds, adult Red Knots depart the breeding grounds before the young birds, leaving the juveniles to grow and mature before they migrate. The young birds then migrate unaccompanied by adults along a route they have never traveled to a destination they have never seen.

These astounding feats of migration offer important scientific information on lightweight energy storage and conversion, along with astonishing innate navigation skills. Advances in monitoring migrating birds using GPS and satellite transmitters have added greatly to our knowledge.

In 2018, the United States joined partner countries like Japan, Mexico, and Russia to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which protected migrating shorebirds across international boundaries and made it unlawful to kill, hunt, sell, or possess nests, eggs, or feathers without a permit.

Still, the greatest threat facing long-distance migrating shorebirds lies in disturbance and habitat loss at mid-migration stopover sites like the Dungeness River mouth mudflats, their crucial refueling stations. What’s so special about the Dungeness River mouth mudflats? As it descends from the Olympic Mountains, the Dungeness River accumulates rich nutrients from the soil and forest. Flowing into Dungeness Bay, it creates an estuary, where fresh water from land meets and mixes with salt water from the ocean. Estuaries transport and trap nutrients and sediment, providing critical habitat for birds, fish, amphibians, insects, and other wildlife. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) calls estuaries “important natural places to the economy and the environment”.

Dungeness Bay is one of the premier estuaries in the Pacific Northwest. The “Important Bird Area” includes intertidal and subtidal waters of Dungeness Bay, Dungeness Spit, the Dungeness River Estuary, and adjacent wetlands. Dungeness Spit and adjacent intertidal areas also lie within the Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge. Its sandflats and mudflats provide extensive feeding areas for many bird species, which includes some of the largest eelgrass beds in the Northwest.

For more information about common birds of our area, come to the Wednesday Morning Bird Walks at the Dungeness River Audubon Center, starting at 8:30 every Wednesday. The Olympic Peninsula Audubon Society also provides Backyard Birding classes at the Dungeness River Audubon Center, along with a variety of field trips to local birding sites. View the website for more information on shorebirds and upcoming field trips